Monday, November 14, 2016

TOT - Boston Braves Add Rookie Slugger

By Goudey [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Transaction of Today...November 14, 1929: The Los Angeles Angels (PCL) trade Wally Berger to the Boston Braves for Art Delaney, George Harper and cash (between $40,000 and $50,000).

In the 1930s, the Boston Braves had very little going in their favor. A re-branding of their name to the Boston Bees in 1936 did little to help, nor did the choice of Casey Stengel as manager in 1938. During the decade, Boston only lost 100 games once, but they did it spectacularly. The 1935 Braves lost 115 games. In contrast, they won just 38. That was the year of Babe Ruth. Since 1900, only the Phildelphia Athletics winning percentage of .235 in 1916 was worse than the '35 Braves in .248.

Wally Berger led the National League that season in homeruns and RBI. It was Year 6 of a successful relationship with one of the best hitters in baseball. Unfortunately, the Boston Braves were too inept to do much with Berger in the lineup.

Six years before that historically awful Braves season, Boston was welcoming Berger to their team. A 24-year old blonde kid from Chicago, Berger was a high school dropout who honed his skills in semi-pro baseball outside of San Francisco. He struggled to break into organized ball until finally landing a spot with Pocatello in 1927. Despite missing the start of the season and finishing the year in the Pacific Coast League, Berger set the single-season Utah-Idaho League homerun record with 24. It would not be the last homerun record he set. Berger joined the Los Angeles Angels to finish 1927 and hit .365 over 14 games as a 21 year-old.

At the time, the Angels were affiliated with the Cubs. The PCL played 200-game plus seasons back then so even as he dealt with injury and illness that shortened his first two full seasons with the Angels, Berger still played in 327 games and belted 60 homeruns.

At 24 years-old, Berger was deemed ready for the majors. The Cubs had first dibs, but passed. Other teams like the Pirates, Athletics, Giants, and Indians were also interested, but it was ultimately the Braves who landed Berger and sent $40,000 to $50,000 and a couple of players to the Angels for the slugger. A right-handed pitcher, Art Delaney had been acquired from Oakland of the PCL two years before and, after a promising rookie season, had struggled tremendously in 1929. Already 32, he would spend two more years in affiliated ball with the Angels and the San Francisco Seals.

George Harper was a veteran of 11 major league seasons, including some good ones with the Phillies in the mid-1920s. He was a member of the National League Champion Cardinals in 1928 and had spent 1929 with Boston after the Braves purchased both him and an aging Rabbit Maranville off the Cards. Harper hit .291 with Boston over 538 PA and would continue to play minor league ball for the next seven years, but never made it back to the majors. Harper would remain associated with baseball for decades  as he altered the way cleats were configured to extend shoe life and provide more comfort.

But this trade is known for Berger. The young man attempted to even negotiate his new contract, but the reserve clause and Berger's rookie status made that a non-starter. Boston gave him a $4,500 contract for 1930. Berger tried to argue for more, but eventually accepted that he had no negotiating power.

After signing, Berger became an immediate favorite of first-year Boston manager, Bill McKechnie. Berger took over in left field and immediately shined. Had the award existed, Berger would have ran away with the Rookie of the Year honors. He slashed .310/.375/.614 with 38 homeruns. It would be the only time in his career he reached double digits in each extra base category (2B-3B-HR). Until Berger arrived, only one player in franchise history had even hit 20 homeruns - Rogers Hornsby in 1928 with 21. Berger's single-season homerun record was a franchise-best until 1953 when Eddie Mathews hit 47.

Berger's 38 homeruns were also a new rookie record. It was tied in 1956 by Frank Robinson before being broke by Mark McGwire in 1987 with 49. It remains the NL rookie record for homeruns and his 119 RBI as a rookie was a record until 2001, when Albert Pujols drove in 130.

It was the beginnings of a seven-year run in which Berger was one of most prolific power hitters in baseball. Between 1930 and 1936, only Mel Ott and Chuck Klein hit more homeruns in the National League than Berger, who bashed 194. He would add five more the next year to grab a stranglehold on the franchise mark for homeruns that lasted until Matthews passed him in 1957 as the first Brave to hit 200 homeruns as a member of the franchise. Of course, some guy named Hank Aaron would pass Matthews.

Berger's success as a Braves ultimately gets overlooked because of the era he played in. He missed the good Boston teams of the late 19th century, the Miracle Braves of 1914, and even the Warren Spahn/Johnny Sain led Braves of the late 40's. His era included losses - a lot of them. In 1937, injuries had finally caught up with the now 31 year-old and with Boston undergoing a number of a financial issues - as they did so often - the then-Bees sent the slugger to the Giants for $35,000 and pitcher Frank Gablor. Berger would play in the World Series for the first time the following October, but the Giants lost to the Yankees.

The Yankees would get the best of Berger two years later as they beat the Reds, who the Giants had traded Berger to in 1938. Berger's run in the majors ended shortly after the 1930's did as he would play just 22 games in 1940. Berger would play a little of minor league ball before the war. In 1942, he joined the Navy and served as a baseball coach. After the war, he became a scout before joining the Northrop Corporation.

On this day 87 years ago, the Braves added a difference maker in their lineup. Unfortunately, the rest of the team's ineptness made that difference minimal.

1 comment:

  1. Wally Berger's HR and RBI accomplishments are even greater than they appear. Wally played in a huge ballpark that made home runs quite difficult. His RBI totals are made even more impressive by the lack of base runners caused by the Braves' weak offense. Pitchers could afford to pitch around Berger as he rarely had a major hitter following him in the lineup. Finally, the story mentions only Chuck Klein and Mel Ott as comparable NL 1930'so sluggers. Klein played most of his career in the Baker Bowl, by far the park with the smallest dimensions, and Ott had a 260-foot short porch in the Polo Grounds, for which he developed a leg kicking stance and swing to lever balls into the nearby seats. Wally Berger is the most underrated NL hitter of the 1930's, and probably the best hitter ever to play for the Braves during their years in Boston.